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Grief AND thankfulness: The role of lament

Lynne Baab • Saturday January 11 2020

Grief AND thankfulness: The role of lament

As a young Christian in my twenties, I was taught to pray using the ACTS pattern: adoration, confession, thankfulness, supplication. Several decades had passed before I realized the prayers in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, contained other prayer components, such as lament, silence and statements of trust. (I wrote a blog post about that.)

For the past two months, I’ve embraced the challenge of holding grief in one hand and thankfulness in the other hand. For the hand that’s holding grief, I have been wondering what exactly is the connection with lament. Are lament and grief the same? Is lament the action that makes grief visible? I had a great time looking around in online dictionaries for definitions and synonyms for lament. I’ve combined the ideas from several dictionaries in the definitions below. Take a look at what I’ve found. What jumps out at you immediately from these words?

definition of lament as a verb (used with object)
to feel or express sorrow or regret for death or some form of loss, to mourn for or over

definition of lament as a verb (used without object)
to feel, show, or express grief, sorrow, or regret, to mourn deeply

synonyms for lament as a verb
bemoan, deplore, regret, moan, bewail, sob, rue, wail, cry, bawl, hurt, repine, weep, howl

definition of lament as a noun
an expression of grief or sorrow, sometimes crying out passionately, sometimes formal such as in verse, song, elegy or dirge.

synonyms for lament as a noun
groan, howl, keen, lamentation, moan, plaint, wail

What jumped out at me was the passionate words such as “wail,” “bawl,” and “howl.” For the past two months, as I’ve been trying to be more honest and accepting of the presence of grief, I’ve been doing it quietly. I do get tears in my eyes, but wailing, bawling and howling have not yet played a role in my journey.

These verbs have helped me see my deep seated, unstated and unexamined tendency to mute all expressions of grief. I wonder how much of this tendency comes from my parents’ stoicism developed in the Depression and World War 2. I wonder if some of it comes from the “nice-ianity” we practice in Christian churches. And frankly, wailing, bawling and howling are not very comfortable. All that passionate pain! Too much! Too hard! To disorienting! If I wail, bawl or howl, will I get lost in those emotions and never come back?

That’s why the quotation on which I have based this blog series is so important:

"The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible."
“The Geography of Sorrow: Francis Weller on Navigating our Losses” in the Sun Magazine

Francis Weller, a psychotherapist, recommends holding grief and thankfulness in tension all the time, and I want to grow in trusting that this tension helps keep the grief from overwhelming us. The progression of thought in the psalms of lament is also instructive. Almost all of them move through grief and sorrow to thankfulness and praise. If you’d like to read some Psalms of lament, I’m providing links to these: Psalms 3, 6, 13, 28, 42, 43, 44, 56, 60, 74, 79, 80, 143. In some cases, only a portion of the psalm contains lament.

Here’s a typical progression of thought in a lament psalm, which I find encouraging:

“How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long? . . .
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation” (Psalm 13:2, 5).

My challenge is to honestly express the emotions of grief and lament before God, without fear and without jumping to thankfulness and praise too soon, trusting I will get there sooner or later.

Next week: Ignatius of Loyola’s wisdom about consolation and desolation. Illustration by Dave Baab. I welcome new subscribers. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up below.

My book on this topic – Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Lifenow available as an audiobook as well as paperback and kindle.

The first post in this series on grief AND thankfulness is here, and the other nine posts follow after.

An example of using a lament psalm in a worship service to pray for displaced people

ACTS prayer analyzed in the light of the Psalms

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